GIANNINI: “Hopelessly Romantic” (24 songs set to poems by Karl Flaster)

GIANNINI: 24 Songs. Jeffrey Price, tenor; Cary Lewis, piano. ACA CM-20011-11 [DDD]; 5b:04. Produced by Tommy Joe Anderson. Distributed by One World Records.

Sing to My Heart a Song; I Shall Think of You; It Is a Spring Night; Little Girl in Blue; Moonlight; Poems of the Sea (Sea Dream, Waiting, Song of the Albatross); There Were Two Swans; Be Still My Heart; I Did Not Know; My Love for You Has Grown; Love; Parting; The Sun Had Set; Heart Cry; Far Above the Purple Hills; If I Had Known; Tell Me, Oh Blue, Blue Sky; I Only Know; Oriental Chants (Life, Shadows, Eternity); Longing.

Vittorio Giannini (1903-1966) is, in my opinion, the most unjustifiably neglected American composer of his generation Despite the breadth of his talent, which found expression through the full range of musical forms and genres, listeners whose experience is limited to commercial recordings have been afforded only a sketchy, skewed representation of his output: an opera buffaThe Taming of the Shrew — one of his fifteen operas — a symphony for band — one of seven symphonies — and a short orchestral divertimento. That’s about it. The trouble is, as marvelous as The Taming of the Shrew is on stage, its music is dominated by rollicking buffa silliness that is not fully satisfying as a listening experience alone, although buried within are a gorgeous love duet and an elaborate and fully consummated finale that provides all the throbbing romantic lyricism one could want, in the true Giannini manner. The band symphony and the divertimento have lovely slow movements, but they are surrounded by music of rather routine interest. What has been missing completely are Giannini’s serious side (in both orchestral and vocal manifestations), his chamber music, and his song output, which brought him much of his early reputation.

This bold new release, aptly titled “Hopelessly Romantic,” provides fully a third — and the best third, most likely — of Giannini’s 74 songs. The 24 presented here are all set to poetry by Karl Flaster, a little-known, small-time poet who was Giannini’s preferred provider of song texts and opera librettos throughout most of his compositional career. Their relationship, beginning when the two met at a bus-stop while still in late adolescence, and lasting until their deaths some four decades later, is a fascinating story in its own right, recounted by Anne Simpson and the poet’s son in “A Working Relationship: The Giannini-Flaster Collaboration” (American Music, Winter, 1988) and summarized in tenor Jeffrey Price’s informative program notes accompanying this new release.

Giannini’s musical output shares some interesting parallels with that of his near-contemporary Erich Korngold (excluding the child prodigy and filmscore aspects o£ the latter’s career). Both composers were master craftsmen who molded the leading European styles of the previous generation into a frankly derivative but irresistibly ingratiating amalgamation. Their music does not sound all that similar, because in Korngold the Viennese element is strongest, while in Giannini the Italian element predominates. Nevertheless, the aesthetic parallel is illuminating. 

Most of Giannini’s songs stem from the early part of his career — up to about 1945. (The dates given in the program notes indicate year of publication — not composition.) Hence, they reveal the most unabashedly romantic aspect of his musical style — some might use the word sentimental. (The contemporaneous songs of Barber, for example, sound cool and reserved by comparison.   As their titles suggest, they are love songs, for the most part, with themes of yearning, heartbreak, and the like. The sentiments and imagery found in the poems do tend to be cloying and trite, but they seemed to stimulate Giannini’s creative imagination in an authentic enough way that he was able to turn them to convincing artistic use — given the appropriate receptivity of the listener. (When requesting a text, the composer would often specify the themes, imagery, or forms he wanted from Flaster, who did his best to comply.) The musical language is based in the chromatic tonality of the mid- to late-19th century, although some of the songs reveal impressionistic harmonic usage

In view of the similarity in tone among the songs, listening to the entire disc in one sitting does produce a certain sameness of effect. This impression diminishes, however, as one becomes familiar with the individual songs. Among the most attractive are the Schubertian “Sing to My Heart a Song,” the tragic “There Were Two Swans,” the expansive “It is a Spring Night,” and “Tell Me, Oh Blue, Blue Sky,” Giannini’s best-known song, championed by Leonard Warren, among others. “Little Girl in Blue” was written under a pseudonym and is clearly an effort to tap a more popular vein. It may elicit snickers at first, but will insinuate itself into one’s memory nonetheless.

Jeffrey Price, who earned his recent doctorate with a dissertation on the Giannini-Flaster songs, possesses a light tenor voice that he uses with considerable taste. He presents the songs with an understated reserve flattering to the music as well as to his own natural endowments.   Operatic overstatement which could be a temptation in music of this kind, would create a strident, over-heated effect after a few songs.) Pianist Cary Lewis provides effective accompaniments in the same spirit.

This is a most valuable contribution to the meager discography of a composer surely capable of attracting a large following if his work were more widely known. Next what is needed are recordings of some of Giannini’s darker, more serious works from the 1960s: Psalm 130 for cello or double-bass and orchestra; The Medead, a towering four-movement monodrama for soprano and orchestra; and the Symphony No. 5 (actually his seventh), composed with an awareness of impending death. And then, how about a look at the 1935 Piano Concerto premiered by Rosalyn Tureck? Or excerpts from Christus, an operatic tetralogy on the life of Jesus? And much more.